We’ve all experienced feelings of anxiety at some point in our lives: over a big exam, a big decision, or a big change. But there’s a difference between the kinds of anxiety that end once feared events are over, and the kinds that limit our ability to function.
Nearly one in five American adults lives with some kind of anxiety disorder, making it our number one mental health issue. These disorders range from specific anxieties, such as social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, to generalized anxiety disorder, in which sufferers experience unusual levels of anxiety about a number of different issues.
Generalized anxiety disorder affects an estimated 6.8 million adults in the U.S., often occurring in those who suffer from major depression.
Of these 6.8 million, many experience symptoms before age 21. This means a large group of people live with generalized anxiety for a significant portion of their lives, which can make everyday functions difficult, stressful, and overwhelming.
That doesn’t mean those living with anxiety can’t experience normal, happy lives. Knowing the signs can help you figure out if anxiety is negatively impacting your life and decide whether it’s time to seek help from a professional.
Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety
Generalized anxiety disorder is usually diagnosed in patients who experience excessive and uncontrollable worry with a minimum of three or more symptoms, which can include:
- Feelings of impending doom, danger, and/or panic
- Rapid heart rate and/or breathing
- Trouble concentrating
- Sleep disturbances
- Gastrointestinal issues
These symptoms add up to create a mental block, inhibiting those with generalized anxiety disorder from living life to its full potential.
What is Excessive?
People with generalized anxiety often take worrying to extreme levels. For example, paying bills or budgeting expenses can be worrying for many people. Those with healthy levels of anxiety naturally stop dwelling on the worry. They move on to either solve the problem that’s causing the concern, make a plan to address it, or discover they can cope with the problem day-to-day.
Those with generalized anxiety will continue to worry, often morphing small concerns into full-blown panic that makes reasonable thinking difficult.
The main difference between an isolated bout of anxiety and the kind that constitutes an anxiety disorder is the duration of symptoms. Persistent worry that lasts for six months or longer is one of the telltale signs of generalized anxiety disorder.
While we don’t know exactly what causes generalized anxiety, studies have shown biological factors, family history, and life experiences—especially traumatic ones—have an impact on a person’s likelihood for developing the disorder.
To help decide if what you’re dealing with is an anxiety disorder, dig into your family’s background. Learn whether any close family members have suffered from an anxiety disorder, or similar mental health issue. Having an idea of what those closest to you have gone through can help you build an understanding of mental health obstacles that can potentially emerge in your life.
A Six-Month History
Wondering if your anxiety is an ongoing problem or just a temporary instance of stress? Think back over the last six months and review how you’ve been feeling, acting, and connecting with others.
You may have experienced frequent feelings of fatigue or trouble sleeping. You may have felt shaky or keyed up most of the time. Or you may have noticed yourself becoming aggravated easily, snapping at friends, family, or co-workers.
If you look back over those months and it’s hard to think of a day when you haven’t felt a sense of panic, increased nervousness, or anxious behavior, it’s probably time to get help.
Your doctor can refer you to a specialized therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist. Together, you’ll find ways to better control the worry, instead of it controlling you. And life will look a lot brighter, freer, and more manageable without anxiety in the way.